From toxic to creative
When Åsa Lundborg woke up one morning without hearing in one ear, she knew the cost of being an overprotective manager was too high and things needed to change. She was managing a department in a state of chaos who were suffering from insecurity, understaffing and a high rate of sick leave. In a couple of months, she succeeded in shifting the working climate with help from Tuff Leadership Training.
In autumn 2012, the emergency room at one of Stockholm’s major hospitals was divided into two sections, and Åsa Lundborg was appointed manager for one of them. She was used to being in control, taking care of everyone, and making sure everyone was happy and satisfied. “I had a very overprotective leadership style”, she says, “and tried to keep everything in check when the working climate grew worse and worse.” By Christmas 2014, things had become very chaotic. Several employees left for other hospitals and there was a hostile and negative atmosphere with lots of gossiping. The hospital was massively understaffed and those who remained were burdened with an unrealistic workload.
“The situation was horrible. I could see no end to it. The new year started with me laying off three employees even though we were understaffed because they refused to do their work, and did not contribute or cooperate. It was a vicious circle,” Åsa explains. “There was 30 of us but we needed at least 40.”
And then, in November last year, Åsa woke up one morning to discover that her hearing in one ear was gone. She was signed off work and was instructed to avoid noise and stressful environments. No one replaced her at work.
“When I wasn’t there, nothing worked. My colleagues would call me at home about 30 times during the weekend when I was supposed to be off work and ask about everything and nothing. As soon as I went back to work, people came running saying, “You need to solve this! You need to solve that!” In the end I understood that this wasn’t sustainable. I felt sick every day on my way to work and when I caught sight of the building I considered just not going in,” Åsa remembers.
Commitment to change
But Åsa was determined to create something better, even if she did decide to leave. “There are such good people working here who have the best intentions and so together we made a commitment to doing something about it.”
Åsa got the green light from the management team and HR, and at the start of 2015, the hospital began working with Tuff Leadership Training. All employees were agreed in going ahead with this project. Åsa participated in the basic leadership training – Steps 1 and Step 2 – and the intense program “The Human Element”. Meanwhile, Tuff coached the whole group in order to support them in changing their working climate.
“I am so grateful to the management team for investing in this. It really was a process and we have all developed a lot. We had all been in a state where anyone could yell at you, no one wanted to communicate, you avoided your colleagues and there was a general aggressive tone. People were mean to each other. We all had regressed, we felt awful and didn’t talk at all”, Åsa says.
We had tried everything
At first Åsa was sceptical about Tuff’s methods of changing culture. She felt that they had tried everything already. They had participated in leadership programs, they had received counselling, they had initiated a series of crisis meetings. Most of it was about the issues themselves and they got stuck in surface matters, avoiding what they really needed to sort out – what was under the surface, the most infected things.
During the first big meeting (which was very turbulent) all of the issues they had avoided previously were put up on the table. Åsa herself got feedback on her tendency to “clear the path” which made her employees feel disempowered. The group listened as each person shared their view on the current situation and although the feedback was painful and some of it felt unfair, it was a relief.
“I realised that somehow I had allowed this culture to exist and had compensated by trying to solve everything. I had been trying so hard to be nice and kind whereas everyone felt I “took over”, mothering them and not trusting them. They thought I considered them incapable of doing anything”, Åsa shares.
Quick results but no “quick fix”
“What was fantastic is that even after the first meeting, things started to happen with people even though it wasn’t a quick fix.” The change process was turbulent and people were hesitant, sceptical and resistant at times. Åsa had to stand strong in her commitment to continue the process. As is sometimes the case, things got worse before they got better. During the second meeting, the penny started to drop – people’s attitudes shifted and everyone noticed the improvement. One of the fundamental differences was that the atmosphere had changed – people had let their guard down and there was room to talk things through in a safe space. Conflicts were resolved, people who felt insignificant were acknowledged for being important and the team made a ground rule that everything – no matter how difficult – could be discussed. A success factor was also Åsa’s commitment to pursue the process. She addressed people’s complaints as they emerged and used them for learning.
For Åsa, the individual support and coaching she got from the Tuff trainer during the process was hugely beneficial and crucial to her coping with the change.
“I made my own super process with myself during the spring,” Åsa explains. “I have changed my way of always being in a hurry – now I stop and listen instead. I have worked as a nurse in psychiatry for many years so I thought I was an expert in listening but I realised I didn’t listen at all! I used this new way of really listening in my personal life as well which made me feel much better and has developed me as a person. An extra bonus has been getting back my time to spend on the things that matter.”
Five sessions resulted in a whole new workplace
From March to September 2015, the team met five times. New employees could hardly believe the stories they were told of how it used to be before. To avoid slipping back, the team initiated days of training in a coaching approach and dedicated meetings where people could talk about the real issues. To the employees the process has meant not only getting a whole new workplace, but also huge benefits on a personal level.
“We have just received the results from the employee opinion surveys and scores have increased in all areas. People like to work here, the sick leave rate has gone do
wn, and we’ve even started to have after works social events! Now everybody is engaged in each other’s well-being. Our focus for 2016 is not working environment, it’s the joy of working. And that is on everyone’s agenda.”